Here we go, back to school. For many moms and dads the transition back to school includes the daily packing of lunches.  When planning lunches, balance and convenience are usually important to most parents. Plan to pack a protein, a grain, a fruit and/or vegetable, and encourage your child or teen to buy calcium-rich milk with lunch everyday. A small salty or sweet treat is okay too. Depriving kids of these kinds of treats can make them feel like they’re missing something and possibly result in overeating when they do get the chance to have them. Providing a 1-ounce bag of chips or two cookies in the lunchbox along with more nutritious foods, helps teach children about portion control and balance.

Be sure to involve your kids – you don’t have to do all the work. Even young children can begin to help pack lunches or get items ready the night before. Have your child go grocery shopping with you, or create your next grocery list.

What should you have in your pantry? Try these simple lunchbox ideas:

  • Lean meats (baked ham, roast turkey, tuna fish). Cheese or cottage cheese, tofu or beans also provide protein.
  • Peanut Butter. It’s a simple staple protein source that requires no refrigeration. Go for natural types or brands with limited ingredients. Peanuts should be the first ingredient.
  • Whole wheat bread and wraps, whole wheat crackers, small whole-wheat tortillas. Add a spread of cream cheese to a wrap (I love Flat-outs), a slice of ham or turkey, a lettuce leaf or baby spinach leaves, and roll up. You can also refrigerate ahead, and then slice into pinwheels in the morning. Pack with an ice pack. If your child is going through the “I don’t like crust” phase, just trim it off. They will eat more of the sandwich if you trim ahead, than if they eat around the crust.
  • Cheese chunks. Cube cheese and place in a reusable container. Pack with apple slices or grapes and whole grain crackers.
  • Fresh or packaged fruit. Large bags of apples are usually more economical. Look for smaller apples to avoid waste. Cut apple using an apple slicer, then wrap a rubber band around it to avoid browning. Bananas ripen quickly and can get “mushy” in a lunch box so may not be ideal. Grapes and berries travel well in small plastic containers. Slice oranges into 4 wedges for quick and easy eating. Flavored or cinnamon applesauce has more added sugars, so choose those once in a while, and choose unsweetened applesauce more frequently.
  • Veggies – baby carrots, cucumber slices, pepper slices, celery sticks. Use a small container to add veggie dip. Add baby spinach leaves or chopped lettuce to wraps or sandwiches.

Save Money by Going Green

There are many tempting packaged items at the store to choose from, but these are not only more expensive, but also produce a lot of paper, plastic, and waste. Sure, sometimes you are time-stressed and want the convenience, but other times, consider your wallet and the environment and waste less by investing in a few reusable containers and flatware. The reusable containers make lunch packing easy, and also prevent the food item from getting smashed or bruised.

  • Nuts. Put a few tablespoons of nuts (about 20) into a small round container or zippered snack bag.
  • Using leftovers. A hard cooked egg or a leftover chicken drumstick is often welcome in a school lunch box. Some lunchrooms may allow students to microwave, if not, consider investing in a hot thermos.
  • Pack fruit/veggies in small container. I’ve been in the lunchroom – many parents pack HUGE portions of healthy foods thinking they are doing a good thing for their kids. An elementary student only needs to eat 4-5 baby carrots or 5-6 strawberries at lunchtime. Believe me, the rest goes into the garbage cans. So pack smaller portions into small container – 12 grapes, 5 strawberries, one sliced kiwifruit, 4 cucumber slices, half an apple, or a small apple sliced.
  • Make your own yogurt parfait kits. Instead of buying the pre-made parfait or yogurt with ‘crunchies’, buy large containers of low fat vanilla yogurt. Scoop some out into your reusable container, and pack granola, sliced fruit or fresh blueberries into small snack bags for your child to assemble at lunchtime.
  • Make a homemade lunch kit. Combine a sandwich, fruit and cookie, instead of relying on packaged lunch kits (there’s not only less waste, but a lot less sodium). Shop for a reuseable lunch kit container.
  • Try a Bento Box. These neat contraptions are partitioned containers that are reusable and pack each food group neatly into its spot. You can find one at numerous stores online including Pottery Barn Kids.

Small Treats are Okay

There is sort of a war on sugar going on. I’m awaiting the next one: War on Salt. Sugar is nutrient-free and an unnecessary part of your diet, but it tastes good and many foods containing it are enjoyable. Balance and moderation is important – choose the basic foods first (protein, grain, fruit, veggie, milk) then allow the treat. When you pack a treat into your child’s lunchbox, keep small portions in mind. Two cookies are enough, one cupcake, a one-ounce bag of chips or snack crackers, or a bite-size piece of candy will add some fun to your child’s lunchbox, but keep calories, sugar and sodium in check.

Happy back to school season!